Saving a rosy piece of Oregon City history
After purchasing 123 High St. in February 1998, I noticed the old house across the right-of-way into the park had an unkempt row of roses along the length of the sidewalk; they were overgrown with gnarly dead wood throughout and all manner of weeds growing up through the root base, including holly, blackberries and couch grass. However, despite appearing to be unloved for more years than one could count, they were covered in profuse pink and fragrant blooms by the middle of May. A small miracle in the old and poor south side of the historic Mcloughlin neighborhood, where, at the time, caring for roses was not on the radar for most neighbors.
The house on the other side of the sidewalk had been built in 1910, a humble one-story that at some point got raised up with a short understory that could accommodate the yearly flooding that occurred, as the house had been built in what was once a natural holding pond for water making its way toward the Willamette River. Three sump pumps had been (improperly) installed around the house at some point in a lame attempt to send the flooding water coming down from the slope of the park behind it out onto the street. The pumps rarely worked, causing the lower part of the house and entire yard to remain inundated, sometimes for over a month each year, with standing water. There were several years when we had snow plus a lot of rain in a short period of time, and the water coming down from park flooded the entire area of that house and into the house, and sometimes right into the right of way toward 123 High, so the sandbags went out every winter, shielding this water from entering my basement door on the north side of the house. When the sump pumps briefly worked, they pumped water out under and over the High Street sidewalk, but the water was running right back into the right-of-way, creating a "lake." In 2015, after years of pleading with the Public Works Department in Oregon City to address the water issues in this location, Eric Hand came over and told me Public Works was going to build a bumper at the sidewalk to keep the rain from coming back into the right-of-way. He also told me about the upcoming work on High Street, and that they would be installing a swale to collect the water against the sidewalk along the right-of-way, wondering if I wanted to try to save the neglected roses in the way.
Even though I had spent long hours weeding and caring for these roses because the neighbors did very little, and only in little spurts that were never maintained, I thought they were the old Queen Elizabeth variety because they were so tough, insisting on blooming despite being starved for water most of the time (I did water them during the worst heat) and never fed (and rarely weeded, except occasionally by me). But when Eric told me about needing to dig them up, I remembered that at one point a few years earlier I had come home from work and saw two women standing with a clipboard looking at the roses. I spoke briefly with them, asking them about their work and wondering if they thought the roses were Queen Elizabeth's, but they weren't sure, and we parted ways. So, at Eric's encouragement, I called the Portland Rose Society, leaving a message inquiring about the roses.
A week later I came home to a phone message from the Rose Society, suggesting I call Rich Baer, which I did. He was a friendly and incredibly knowledgeable fellow who, after I described the location and color of the rose, knew right away they were the Madame Caroline Testout roses. He gave me the "nutshell" version of the story about how the planners for the 1905 Lewis & Clark Expedition had wanted to find and plant 150,000 roses of the same variety for the celebration and commenced a worldwide search. They found their rose in France in sufficient numbers and proceeded to bring the roses to Oregon (imagine!), planting them everywhere around the city, especially in the vicinity of the actual exposition. Some of those roses actually came out to Oregon City (then quite a distance from Portland, as you can imagine!) and 14 of them were planted at the Second Street entrance to the Promenade, this at a time before 123 was even built! The house along the sidewalk had been built though, and so apparently someone associated with the upcoming Exposition decided the strip along the sidewalk was a good place to plant these lovely Madame Caroline Testout roses.
When he finished his wonderful story about these roses, I expressed my need to preserve them, adding that they would have to be dug up. This was just at the beginning of winter and I was concerned that digging them up might compromise their viability. He replied, "...oh, no, you can't kill those roses! They could sit outside bareroot throughout the entire winter without being harmed at all!"
Thus, Eric Hand and I came up with a plan, and soon the backhoe came and dug up the roses with its large-toothed shovel. They were deposited, plant, soil and weeds, along the side of the garage, where I went through each one, first pruning the tops down, then cleaning the soil and weeds from the roots, cutting back the roots to a "plant-able" size. It took me three days to do the job, in the cold and wet rain, to boot. When they were all lined up, I placed an announcement on our neighborhood Nextdoor.com website, asking for people to come forward and help me save them.
There were city commissioners and staff, historic society members and neighbor gardeners who came forward and, one by one, the roses began to disappear out into the Oregon City environs — except the most pathetic-looking last three "unwanted children." I was left with three orphans.
One by one, I held them up for closer inspection — would these neglected and mutilated roses make it?
I decided to give them a try and dug three big holes in the planting strip in front of the house, and with lots of organic compost from Dean Innovations in Portland, carefully placed them in their new home along the street naked and cold. Then I waited for spring's answer.
To my great pleasure, all three roses seemed joyful in their explosion of fresh green leaves, but shy in their ability to do much. The first year was humble, and the roses struggled through the summer heat — it's not easy for a sophisticated French lady to grow along a busy, hot street! But with care they have grown into beautiful bushes, loaded with blooms from May through October, miraculous in their insistence to provide the sweetest of pink color and fragrance to all passersby. My house filled with Madame Caroline Testout bouquets every week.
Recently Madame Testout passed into new gardener's hands, still excited to be alive and provide beauty to all who walk and ride by. They are now part of a Portland Audubon Backyard Habitat Gold Certified garden, and grow between a wide assortment of other flowering plants, many of them native, so there are plenty of native bees and other beneficial insects to keep them happy nearby, along with a buried soaker hose to keep their thirst satisfied during the hot summer months. Despite the dirt and grime of the street, they never give up.
Without Rich Baer's dedication to the graceful and enigmatic rose, saving this wonderful piece of history in Oregon City might have never happened. Let us here in the Portland metro area never give up our love of providing space for beauty and wonder, especially In our gorgeous roses!
Francesca Anton recently moved out of Oregon City and is now living on the McKenzie River in Vida, Oregon.